What to Know About Respite Foster Care

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 04, 2022
5 min read

Being a foster parent can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be mentally and emotionally draining. When foster parents start to get burned out, respite foster care providers step in. They allow foster parents to take a break while knowing that the children are still under the care of someone safe and capable.

Respite foster care is a program where a foster parent or family may temporarily take in a foster child so the child’s primary foster parents can take a break.

Foster children have often experienced profound trauma, so caring for foster children can be mentally and emotionally draining for foster parents. Offering the option of respite care allows foster parents to avoid burnout.

According to the National Fostering Group, there are three common challenges that foster parents face.

Managing challenging behavior. There are several reasons foster children may end up in the system, and many of these reasons can be traumatic. This trauma, such as abuse and neglect, may lead to behavioral difficulties, as the child likely won’t have the necessary skills to properly cope. Challenging behaviors may include violence, tantrums, and running away.

Interacting with biological families. In most foster care situations, the goal is to reunite the children with their biological parents. To do this, foster parents may need to stay in constant contact with the child’s parents, and biological parents may be offered supervised visitation time with the children.

Sometimes, the biological parents will be receptive to the system. At other times, foster parents will bear the brunt of their anger and resentment. This can be incredibly difficult for foster parents, who know that keeping the children connected with their biological parents is often crucial despite the emotional toll it may take on them.

Experiencing exhaustion in your own life. The term “caregiver burnout” describes burnout caused by spending all of your mental and physical energy caring for others. While it’s often applied to those caring for ailing loved ones, it also applies to foster parents. This challenging aspect of foster parenting is what respite foster care aims to alleviate. If you’re struggling to care for yourself, it may be difficult to care for the children within your custody.

Medically complex and special needs children in particular may require a higher level of caretaking that can more easily cause exhaustion and burnout. In some states, respite care is made available for biological parents of medically complex or special needs children.  

In the United States, foster care is managed at the state or county levels. As a result, the foster care system, including respite foster care, will look different from state to state. Some states may not even offer respite foster care.

States may also set a specific amount of hours per year that each foster family can use for respite. Foster parents may opt to use a few hours of respite care for a night out or may decide to take a few days at once for a trip or a weekend off. States may require that this time off is requested in advance. Some states may allow trusted family or friends to step in while others only allow this in emergency situations.

Payment for respite foster care is determined on a state-by-state and (in some cases) county-by-county basis. 

If you want to know how to be a respite care provider, the first thing to do is check your state’s guidelines on respite foster care. Each state is different, and you will want to be sure you’re looking at the guidelines that apply to your area. 

Your state guidelines will tell you whether you qualify, and if you don’t, they will let you know what changes you need to make in order to qualify. General respite foster care requirements may include:

  • A minimum age limit
  • Your home passing a health and safety inspection
  • A private room available for at least one youth
  • Financial stability beyond your foster care stipend
  • Background checks
  • A drug screening
  • Proof of a recent physical exam
  • Completion of foster care training

The Gladney Center for Adoption offers ten tips for being a good respite foster care provider:

  1. Be prepared. Get as much information about the child you will be fostering as possible. Be prepared for anything they may need to be comfortable or require in case of emergencies.
  2. Get trained. You will likely have to pass some sort of training to be able to be a respite foster care provider, and additional training will help for times when you are fostering a child with special needs.
  3. Be available. In most states, you will have advanced notice of when you’ll be needed. Sometimes, though, emergencies arise, and you will want to be ready.
  4. Create a schedule. Coordinating a consistent schedule as a foster family has many benefits. You will know ahead of time when you’ll be needed, and this allows the family to take regular breaks. The pattern is predictable for the child and allows you to form a better relationship with the family and child.
  5. Take multiple kids. Sibling groups will feel much more secure when they are together.
  6. Don’t be in it for the money. Do you get paid for respite foster care? Yes, but generally, the stipend is just enough to cover the children’s expenses. If you’re only in it for the money, you’ll be sorely disappointed, and the children will be able to tell.
  7. Have a positive attitude. Become a respite foster parent because you truly love helping kids.
  8. Have the correct perspective. Respite foster care is not “babysitting.” You’re caring for a vulnerable child, and you have the opportunity to help in their healing.
  9. Have fun. Respite foster care doesn’t just have to be a vacation for the foster parents. It can be a vacation for the kids too. Make a plan that covers their needs and also includes activities and outings.
  10. Build bridges. Working in respite foster care could lead to becoming a long-term foster parent if you’d like. It also can be a stepping stone to adoption if reunification is not in the child’s best interests.

Becoming a respite foster care provider can be a rewarding experience. If you’re not sure if you qualify, though, do a search for your state’s respite foster care information to find out.